Before Dr. Lori J. Morgan makes any big decision as Huntington Hospital president and CEO, there’s a method she likes to use first, where she imagines the patient is in the middle of the room.
“There is a business side to operating a facility that is as large as Huntington, but when it comes to decision-making, I always put the patient in the center of the room and try to make the right decision for that patient at that moment,” she said. “For me, in the long-term that always ends up being a good business decision, although it’s not always the case in the short-term.”
The patient-first priority is a strategy that has boded well for Morgan and for the hospital she’s leading in the changing landscape of community healthcare.
“Making patients central to all that we do is good business, even if in the short term that decision is not always good for the bottom line,” said Morgan, who helmed a Portland-based hospital before coming to Huntington in September. She was chosen after a nationwide search to replace long-time president and CEO Stephen Ralph, who retired after holding the top job for 22 years.
By all accounts of Huntington staff and board, Morgan is a real catch.
The first woman to hold the president and CEO position at Huntington, she is a balance of hawkish CEO and accomplished doctor, having spent 20 years as a trauma surgeon and 30 years overall in healthcare administration experience. She has focused on developing programs that support patient care, strengthening physician collaborations, and has proven especially adept at the financial landscape. As president of Legacy Emanuel Medical Center, Morgan turned annual net losses of $3 million into annual net profits of more than $36 million, achieving an operating margin of more than 10% in 2016.
In describing Morgan, Huntington Hospital board and board of trustees member Michelle Chino called her “unflappable,” emphasizing how fortunate the board feels to have made the match.
“Somebody who’s been a trauma surgeon is cool as a cucumber; she is calm, decisive, able to assess a lot of information and data and make decisions very quickly. That’s a unique skill set, and of course, she’s extremely bright,” said Chino, noting that the hospital was lucky to have had a dynamic group of highly qualified candidates, and that “our dance card was filled.”
“When we met Lori, though, we just somehow kind of knew, kind of like when someone meets his or her spouse. We all felt that way as a group,” she said. “She’s the right person at the right time for this hospital.”
Morgan has brought her hands-on, high-energy administrative style with her, carrying over some successful habits. Known as a straight-shooter, she writes her own emails regularly to hospital staff and physicians, a habit she picked up as a trauma medical director. “Sometimes what you say is interpreted through the lens of the listener and isn’t conveyed exactly as intended,” noting that sending emails directly avoids that problem.
Morgan also does weekly rounds with administrative staff and even board members, alternating floors to see each area of the hospital regularly and to see first-hand the work the doctors and nurses are doing. And really, said Morgan, it’s to meet the patients; keeping them at the center of the conversation.
Although she gave up clinical care about nine years ago to focus on the administrative side, Morgan said doing rounds helps keep her grounded with one-on-one patient contact.
“Dr. Morgan is interested in how our patients are experiencing the hospital and care they’ve received so she can learn what we are doing well and what we could do even better,” said Jane Haderlein, senior vice president of philanthropy and public relations. “But she is equally interested in the whole person and what matters to them — their lives beyond being a patient in a hospital bed. To me, that is what makes her a truly inspiring leader.”
Taking a break recently from the whirlwind of duties she’s tackled since September, Morgan reflected on her recent transition to Pasadena and Huntington Hospital. She noted the difference between her life as a CEO and that of a trauma surgeon.
“I do miss operating … I still dream about operating; sometimes I operate all night long,” she said, chuckling. “But this is more of a public health model. When I was the director of trauma, the decisions I made affected 3,500 patients per year. Now it’s much broader. So the decisions you make are a little further away but have a much broader effect on the lives of citizens throughout Pasadena and the surrounding area …
depending on those decisions, it could vary the access to care people are going to have.”
Her clinical experience, however, also has lent a sense of trust with the physicians and nurses at Huntington, who appreciate her in-depth knowledge working in the trenches of clinical care.
“I’ve spent my nights on call and argued with the lab about how long it was going to take to get results back; I’ve had those experiences. I think there is some bonding that happens over that that is very valuable.”
That doctoring instinct is a hard one to kick for Morgan: Coming off a very intense flu season, she raises an eyebrow and peers over her glasses to ask if one has had the flu shot. She’s been known to walk board members down the hall to get the vaccine. And if it’s only 70% effective against the virus, as has been reported?
“Take it. Take that 30% you can get,” she said pointedly.
Originally from Maine, Morgan received her medical degree from the University of Washington School of Medicine, completing her surgical residency at Stanford University Medical Center. She received her MBA from Pacific Lutheran University, with a focus on technology and innovation management.
Jaynie Studenmund, vice chair board of directors who was on the hiring committee, said that Morgan’s medical background is invaluable as president and CEO.
“We saw it as a plus at the beginning, but now that we see her in action at the hospital, we see it as a tremendous plus. The staff has a very strong advocate, which I think cannot be understated,” Studenmund said. “She’s not afraid to roll up her sleeves and work side by side with her staff. She would never ask anyone to do something she wouldn’t do herself.”
Going forward, Morgan plans to leverage the already invaluable assets Huntington holds dear. Compared with other nonprofit community hospitals in the region, it has managed some critical investments for the community, including a state-of-the-art comprehensive stroke center, a residency and graduate medical education program, and also its senior care network program, helping more seniors stay in their homes longer through wraparound services.
“We’ve made significant investments so that people don’t have to travel downtown for their care. We want to offer the highest level of care that we can right here in Pasadena.”
Morgan is also very committed to Huntington’s behavioral health services, as one of the few hospitals that offer in-patient psychiatry care at its Della Martin Center. Touching briefly on the spiraling homeless population in Southern California, Morgan referred back to when the state closed government-run psychiatric facilities and the fact that up to 70% of the homeless have an identifiable psychiatric diagnosis.
“Not that I’m advocating for a return to that kind of care, but I don’t think that ‘no care’ is a solution either,” she said.
In her spare time, Morgan has settled into the Southern California lifestyle, staying active and healthy. While taking up yoga is still a work in progress, “I’d do better if I could stop laughing at myself for most of the session,” she noted.
She also pursues healthy collaborations for the hospital, attending events for the American Heart Association, the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the fire department’s breast cancer awareness.
“We are very much a community hospital and a community resource; Pasadena has been very generous in supporting us and the work that we do … for us it’s being that depth in the community and providing super high-quality care as well so that people can get their care near home,” she said.